Amid concerns about the fairness of the Asheville Police Department and no small amount of skepticism, about 40 community members shared their thoughts this evening on how to improve the city’s law enforcement.
The event, at the Grant Center, was part of the APD’s revision of its strategic plan, a process led by consultants Harry Dolan (formerly chief of the Raleigh Police Department) and Willie Williams (formerly chief of the Wilson Police Deaprtment). They’ve already done a similar session with APD officers to hear their concerns.
But this particular planning session doesn’t come at a typical time. The APD has had no shortage of controversy recently, including public criticisms of Chief William Anderson by some of his officers, questions about the chief’s actions after a March accident involving his son, concerns about response times, and a shortage of dispatchers. Anderson proceeded the meeting by telling the members of the community that “we want your candor.”
Rather than a town hall-style forum, the consultants opted to break the audience into groups, and asked them to name good things about the APD before proceeding to recommend what should change. At the end of those discussions, city staff and the consultants “synthesized,” to use Dolan’s term, the demanded changes and handed out stickers for the audience to indicate which ones they viewed as highest priority.
So, according to the people that showed up, how does the APD need to change? The attendees had a variety of different priorities, including equal treatment, less stereotyping, more drug enforcement, a more diverse police force (especially more African-American officers), civilian liaisons in neighborhoods, and a stricter disciplinary process for officer misconduct.
There were some areas of praise, especially for the department’s school resource officers, the hiring of Anderson (the APD’s first black chief), response time, increased visibility, its downtown policing unit, and more open information. But in every group, most of the discussion centered around problems and what the citizens felt they aren’t seeing—and some possible ways to fix it.
But there was also no shortage of skepticism. In one group, when asked what they believe the APD did well, one response was “I have not witnessed anything good.” Two other attendees quickly agreed. People in every group said they saw problems with the APD”s effectiveness and its fairness. Some called for a complete review of the department’s conduct, and others doubted that input sessions like this make a difference.
Michelle Harrison said that her house had been fired at five times, but that no detective followed up to let her know more about the danger she faced. “It’s like the Wild, Wild West,” she told Xpress after the session ended. Others in the same discussion group added that they felt the department wasn’t attentive enough to the concerns of African-American communities in Asheville.
The discussion, sometimes vigorous, ran over the alloted time, leaving Dolan to summon back the groups and try to gather their suggestions before inviting them. Some asked about a follow-up forum to further discuss their concerns, but Dolan said that depended on Anderson, who said he’s open to the possibility.
As Loletha Green, one of the founders of the Lets Learn Foundation, put her stickers on the board, she told Xpress that when it came to her belief if the input session did any good, “we’ll know when we see change.”
“It’s easy to talk about this sort of thing when it’s on paper; I want to see it set in stone,” she said. “I want to see them enforce the law equally. I want an officer, when they stop someone, to think about how they’d like to be treated when they’re stopped.”